Scott Morrison – Lawyers call for Attorney-General Christian Porter to be subjected to the same standard of accountability as others in the legal profession
Prominent lawyers are calling for Attorney-General Christian Porter to be subjected to the same codes of conduct as many others in the legal profession, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to reject calls for an independent inquiry into the serious allegation that, as a 17-year-old, Mr Porter raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 — an allegation which he strenuously denies.
But there is increasing disquiet in the legal community about the Prime Minister’s stance.
This disquiet has nothing to do with any suggestion of criminal action by Mr Porter, but to the damage being done to the role of Attorney-General, and through it our legal institutions, when such a grave allegation is left hanging unresolved over the country’s first law officer.
Sydney barrister Tom Brennan suggests that, rather than Mr Porter being subjected to a different standard to the rest of the community, the government is asserting that the first law officer need not face the scrutiny faced by Australians in professions across the entire community — which includes the professional conduct regimes faced by lawyers.
“There’s a whole range of different standards that apply to different Australians working in different jobs,” Mr Brennan told 7.30.
“We lawyers are subject to Professional Regulation, [which includes] where the regulator may look at things that have nothing to do with our practice of law, or if they reflect on our suitability to practice.
“It’s undoubtedly the case that the Law of Professional Regulation recognises that conduct of the kind of subject to this allegation may constitute professional misconduct, in that it renders the person unsuitable to work as a professional.
“So, it’s something that could possibly be investigated by the legal regulator.”
‘Fit and proper’ person for the profession
Two Melbourne academics — including Julian Webb from Melbourne Law School — are now in the process of lodging a complaint against Mr Porter.
“The proposal is that we put a request in to the legal practice board of WA to consider whether Christian Porter should be considered as a fit and proper person to be a member of the legal profession,” Mr Webb told 7.30.
“A number of us involved in this would have liked to have seen further inquiries of and by the Solicitor-General, as has been suggested.
“But if that is not the move forward, then this seems to us to be one of the few remaining options to ensure accountability, and to ensure that the Federal Attorney-General — the Commonwealth’s most senior officer — is held to the same standards of accountability as any other lawyer in Australia.
“That is a job for the legal practice boards.”
Investigating an allegation of child sexual assault
In the same way, teachers and others who deal with children are subject to working with children regimes that demand any complaint of sexual assault must be investigated by a body which would have the powers of a Royal Commission.
The woman at the centre of the historical rape allegation faced by the Attorney-General was 16 at the time of the alleged assault — meaning she was a child in the eyes of the law,” Mr Brennan said.
“The state and territories have very special regimes for dealing with allegations of child sexual assault.
“They require that a whole raft of people report any allegation — not only allegations that have been investigated by police.
“It makes findings on the balance of probabilities not to a criminal standard.
“That’s not a regime which applies to Commonwealth Ministers, but it’s certainly a regime which the rule of law in Australia recognises and enforces.
“Every teacher, every childcare worker, every priest, every rabbi, every mufti is subject to a regime of mandatory reporting and mandatory investigation of any allegation of child sexual assault.”
Lawyer takes issue with Morrison’s response
Victorian barrister Jess Moir says there were problems in the signals the Prime Minister was sending in his treatment of the allegation.
“To say that an allegation of abuse, of rape, is only relevant for the purposes of the police is to deny your own responsibility — the responsibility that all of us have — to work on creating a culture that keeps everybody safe,” she told 7.30.
“The issue that I take with Scott Morrison’s response is that he said very publicly that he declined to read the dossier of materials that was provided to him, and instead he elected to be briefed on the contents of that dossier.
“In doing that, he turned away from the substance of the allegation in the alleged victim’s own words.
“It just undermines everybody’s sense that if they raise a complaint, that leaders will listen to them and care about what they have to say.”
Code of conduct for ministers
Finally, there is the question of a code of standards that doesn’t apply to average Australians, but does apply to a special group — the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
The updated set of standards released by Scott Morrison when he became Prime Minister said the Australian people deserved a government that would act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve.
But the Prime Minister today continued to only address the potential criminality involved in the allegation, and not the broader implications of the controversy.
“He’s a fine Attorney-General and a fine Minister for Industrial Relations and he is an innocent man under our law,” Mr Morrison said.